Laughing at the fire

Surviving life's flaming forklifts.

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You would think that a flaming forklift would grab my attention, but it's surprising how unobtrusive those things are in real life.

"The forklift is on fire," Chris said to me almost casually, and I wouldn't have noticed anything was amiss but for Chris walking past me pretty fast. Other than that, you would have thought everything was absolutely as it should be, though you have to take into consideration that we were in a factory warehouse that distributes skateboard wheels, which means there was a lot of stuff going on that competed for my focus.

Take the hobo standing across from me asserting his theories on post-apocalyptic survival and how, in the future, when the Chinese people come to his door to steal his milk, he's prepared to blow off their heads with a shotgun. I argued that that seemed like an extreme response to someone coming to your door to borrow food, and milk is not even a necessary staple, either, if you ask me.

"I will blow those fuckers away," he kept saying, "and if you can't do it yourself, you better move in with me so I can do it for you."

"Oh my God, this is his way of hitting on me!" I realized, and I was really charmed by that, because it's been a while since someone offered to shoot the heads off pillaging Chinese people for me. "Did you hear that?" I said to Chris, because the hobo was his friend, after all, or at the very least the old guy lived in a car in front of this very warehouse, which contained Chris' business. I wanted Chris to take some pride in how nicely his friends were treating me — what with their offers to let me live with them in their underground bunkers in New Mexico and all — but Chris was at that moment rushing from a flaming forklift.

I do have this to say about a forklift that has caught on fire: They don't smell good.

So you would think that the smell alone would have alerted me to the danger, but I took that in stride, too, because oddly the smell of a burning forklift fits right in with a noisy skateboard-wheel warehouse populated by recovered beach bums and homeless conspiracy theorists. My old friend Chris fits into neither of those categories, but his employees do, and if I was ever looking for a part-time job in Huntington Beach, Calif., I would want to work at Chris' wheel warehouse, where a burning forklift hardly merits a startled brow. In the end, it barely occurred to me that I had cause to be alarmed before Chris was back with a blanket to smother the flames. Afterward, everyone went about their business as if it were perfectly normal for a smoldering forklift to serve as a centerpiece in their work area.

"Oh," I thought, "I could fit in here."

Don't get me wrong, I don't require my friends to have forklifts, but I do consider it a huge perk — an even bigger one if the forklift is on fire. Because how a person handles a flaming forklift is a good test of their personality, if you ask me. Do you run away screaming? Do you shield your loved ones? Do you panic?

My own response was the opposite of panic, which is not to say that I remained calm, but that I remained oblivious. I saw the flames, I smelled the burning gasoline, and I heard my friend rush by while uttering the words, "The forklift is on fire," but my brain didn't add those things together in order to create a sense of impending danger. Instead, I accepted the circumstances and laughed about them later, after the fire was out, with everyone else.

Even the hobo survivalist was laughing, and I thought that said something, to be able to find something to laugh about when you're living in your car, when the end of the world is right around the corner, when you're staving yourself against the necessity of murdering the inevitable throng of Mongols eyeing your milk supply. "The end of the world is coming," he continued to warn between guffaws. "Make no mistake about that."

"I won't make that mistake," I assured him. I didn't tell him that I think the end of the world has already come and gone. I think it comes and goes every damn day. I think it commonly crashes to pieces at our feet in any myriad ways. I think most days we wake up with heartbreak and regret burning in our breasts, and how we handle it says a lot about our personalities. Do you run away screaming? Do you shield your loved ones? Do you panic? Or do you simply accept the circumstances? Do you throw a blanket on the flames and laugh about them later, after the fire goes out, with everyone else?

Hollis Gillespie authored two top-selling memoirs and founded the Shocking Real-Life Writing Academy (

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